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Mike Nguyen's My Little World

At Burbank-based July Films, director Mike Nguyen in making My Little World, an independent feature which may provide a practical model for other Hollywood animators wanting to make their own movies. It could also help extend the viability of traditional cel animation in the theatrical realm.

Mike Nguyen
Mike Nguyen with art work for My Little World.

It is perhaps unfair to judge how Mike Nguyen's My Little World, a work-in-progress, will eventually turn out; but with some 90% of rough animation done, this modest film exudes considerable charm and artistry. It's importance, though, goes beyond its cinematic virtues, and could represent a major stepping stone in the establishment of a viable independent feature animation sector in the United States.

Over the years, independent feature production in the U.S. has been sporadic, with much of it done for TV. Of particular interest are such films as John and Faith Hubley's Of Stars and Men (1964), Fred Wolf's The Point (1971), R. O. Blechman's The Soldier's Tale (1983), John Matthews' The Mouse and the Motorcycle (1986), and Paul Fierlinger's Drawn From Memory (1995). More recently Bill Plympton has become dominant with such films as Mutant Aliens (2001), with Richard Linklater coming into the fray with Waking Life (2001). Though the quality of these films are considerably above the Hollywood average, unlike independent live action movies, they have not yet made much impact on the industry.

Two years ago, Nguyen put aside a career as a successful animator to make My Little World. Unlike others in Hollywood with similar dreams, he did not wait for backing from a major studio, but used a production model common to independent live-action filmmakers, which has allowed him considerable creative freedom.

Blue jumps to avoid Princess' attempt on the ball in one of the dance-like soccer games in My Little World.
Blue jumps to avoid Princess' attempt on the ball in one of the dance-like soccer games in My Little World.

The story, set somewhere in Asia, tells of a young boy named Blue who is sent to the country to spend the summer with an aunt to overcome a certain sadness. There, he makes friends and becomes the star of a soccer team, before returning home with a new attitude towards life. By itself, the narrative is unexceptional, but Nguyen imbues it with considerable energy and provides some wonderful dance-like sequences that belies the film's minimal budget. The results Nguyen has achieved, though, owes as much to the way he has managed the production as it does to his artistic vision.

Born in Saigon in 1963, Nguyen Phu Cuong came to the U.S. as 'one of those boat people' at 14 with a younger brother; they ended up in Rochester, New York, where he was given the name Mike by a school official. He started making animated films in the eighth grade, went on to CalArts, where he graduated in 1988. He got a job at Disney, where he worked on The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under and Beauty and the Beast. His other credits include Once Upon a Forest, The Pagemaster, Quest for Camelot, Iron Giant and Osmosis Jones. He also taught character animation and film composition part time at CalArts.

As an animator, Nguyen liked to take assignments others shunned, feeling they offered more freedom and opportunity to learn. Thus, on Quest for Camelot, he took on the task of animating Aiden, the falcon. 'It is a small part,' he says, 'but it allowed me to design the character and have input on how it would move, as well as experiment with the animation.' And on the basis of his work on Aiden, Brad Bird hired him as a lead animator on Iron Giant, where he was responsible a number of scenes in the first half of the film, including the one where Dean first meets the giant.

The Town Kids hitch a ride to the mountain in My Little World. (Concept Art by Stephen Wong.)

A Different Production Model
Bird's practice of giving animators entire scenes to do, rather than individual characters, along with the way student films are made at CalArts molded the way Nguyen structured production on My Little World. 'Everybody at CalArts,' he notes, 'has to make a 2-5 minute film. So, if everyone does 5 minutes and we have 10 animators, that's 50 minutes! So, then a feature does not seem that far off.'

As a result, the crew on My Little World has remained small. He began with a staff of 4, which later expanded to 12-14, and is now down to 9. His staff, which includes ex-students of his from CalArts, are working on deferred compensation; this is common enough in low-budget, live-action filmmaking, but unheard of in animation since Don Bluth's early days.

To date, about $2 million, including sweat equity, has been invested in the film, and Nguyen is trying to raise another $4 or $5 million to finish it. The initial seed money came from Korean animation executive An Hee Choi, the mother of a friend.

Like a number of other animators turned producer, Nguyen has attempted to deal with the way the production process can dampen creativity and tries to allow each animator considerable latitude. This includes allowing them to do their own rough inbetweens, 'if they feel like it.' He also doesn't 'require animators to draw exactly on model. So, as long as it is in the right proportion, they can be a little bit off in terms of detail, which I can take care of in cleanup.' This approach, he notes, is 'something Disney did in the early days.'

A magical galaxy appears to the Town Kids in My Little World.
A magical galaxy appears to the amazed Town Kids in My Little World. (Concept Art by Stephen Wong.)

'Nowadays,' he points out, 'an animator is supposed to tie down their scenes so all the drawings end up being very clean looking, with clean-up artists not having to do much.' But, as he points out, each animator actually animates somewhat differently. 'So,' he feels, 'the whole thing really does not look seamless. Whereas in the early Disney films, it looks all the same.'

Except when absolutely necessary, he has stuck with his plan to do all the rough character animation first and add backgrounds and special effects later, which puts the emphasis on acting. 'The good thing about this approach,' he says, 'is we can make the background support the performances and not get overwhelmed by the details of the setting.'

Disney, Miyazaki and Tytla
Nguyem says his main influence has been early Disney films, though 'Miyazaki influenced me the way he approaches filmmaking, which is more like a live-action film.' Unlike Disney, 'Miyazaki is not afraid of coming up with elaborate camera moves. As far as animators, I am most influenced by Bill Tytla, whose characters just vibrate with life. His animation is very elusive. You have to look at his work as animation, you cannot just look at his drawings.'

The mysterious Ghost Bunnies in My Little World.
In an obvious reference to Miyazaki, the mysterious Ghost Bunnies gather around Aunt Helen's house in My Little World.

Mike Nguyen's feeling for tradition also contributed to his decision to make My Little World using cel animation. 'To me, there's something magical about this medium, which is capable of expressing so much emotion. I think what Walt Disney did just scratched the surface for what this medium can do.'

'Disney started out with nothing and invented all these techniques to express something; but once that body of techniques was established, we began to rely on those techniques without going any further and the quest for experiment somehow stopped. I feel a need to explore new ways of saying things. That's why perhaps the films of Miyazaki make me feel so alive.' And perhaps that is the best way to judge My Little World when, hopefully, it is finished sometime next year.

-- Harvey Deneroff
May 18, 2003

2003 by Harvey Deneroff







Blue, the hero of My Little World.Blue, the hero of My Little World, carries a deep sadness, and soccer is his one release. He overcomes his sadness while spending the summer with his aunt in the country, where he joins the Town Kids' soccer team, where he develops some close friendships. Nguyen says, “Friendship is the main theme of the film. It's also about remembering all those wonderful times when I was young. What was it that is so beautiful then, when at the time I wasn't able to recognize it. When I didn't have the wisdom to see the privilege of having those carefree days, with no responsibilities.”

The Town Kids and Tree Kids choose their sacks before the sack race in My Little World.

.The Buffalo Kids in My Little World.
The Buffalo Kids, the defending champions, arrive for the Final Game in My Little World.